Earl Staley in his studio
Earl Staley has a studio above Art Supply on Main, and I spent an afternoon there shortly before Christmas. I first encountered Staley's work in 1985 at the Fresh Paint show. I moved away from Houston a few years later, and Staley also moved away, and I didn't hear much about him until recently, when I stumbled across his enjoyable but infrequently-updated blog, Professor Art.
Staley's story is interesting and, while unique, it says quite a lot to me about Houston and the art scene here. Staley moved to Houston in the 60s and taught at Rice. This was before the Menil contingent moved en masse from St. Thomas to Rice (a key event in the art history of Houston). At the time, he was having friction with his boss at Rice, so when Menil uprooted her art department at St. Thomas and took them to Rice (bringing along William Camfield, who stayed at Rice for decades and taught me a couple of very interesting classes), there was a vacuum at St. Thomas which Staley moved in to fill. This was in 1969.
Shortly after this, his career blossomed. He was getting regular solo shows at various galleries in Houston and in New York. His work had been noticed by Marcia Tucker, who included it in her influential exhibit "Bad" Painting at the New Museum in 1978, alongside work by Neil Jenney, William Copley and Joan Brown, as well as including his work in the American Pavilion at the 1984 Venice Biennale. that same year, he had a retrospective that started at the CAMH and went to the the New Museum. But, to quote Bessie Smith:
Once I lived the life of a millionaire,He had a bad divorce, he made what in retrospect was an unwise decision to move to Santa Fe, and his art style fell out of favor. (His greatest champion, Marcia Tucker, died in 2006.) So now he's back in Houston, no gallery (although he has an upcoming watercolor show at PG Contemporary), teaching at Lonestar Community College (the local community college systems are a life raft for many a Houston artist), living on the East Side on the weekends and in Tomball near the school during the week, and spending long hours in Midtown at this beautiful studio.
Spent all my money, I just did not care.
Took all my friends out for a good time,
Bought bootleg whiskey, champagne and wine.
Then I began to fall so low,
Lost all my good friends, I did not have nowhere to go.
It's mighty strange, without a doubt
Nobody knows you when you down and out
I mean when you down and out ["Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out," Jimmy Cox]
This is the quintessential studio that you could live in. It's roomy, filled with natural light, and downright homey. Staley painted the interiors bright colors (he never shies away from bright colors), so the joint has a festive feel. And it has permitted him to be prolific, especially with watercolors.
some of the many watercolors Staley has been producing in his new space
Another current practice involves recycling old work. I don't mean this in a conceptual sense of, say, revisiting old subject matter. He is literally taking old paintings, cutting them up, and pasting them back together, then painting on top of them. He has a very unprecious view of his older work. Here's what he wrote on his blog about this practice:
In 1981 before the Professor went to Rome he painted this picture. It is called The Awakening. It has been rolled up for many years. When he painted it he thought he was the new Picasso. His ego was rather large. He knows better now. The picture has been rolled up for years. He has recycled it. [Professor Art, November 2, 2011]
Earl Staley, History Lesson, acrylic collage, 2010
The question then is, are these pieces of old paintings formal elements in the new paintings, or is there some sense of autobiography in their use? I think the title of History Lesson suggests the latter.
Earl Staley, Recuerdos, acrylic collage, 2011
The autobiographical aspect is even more pronounced in Recuerdos (Spanish for "memories"). He typically paints over the old pieces of canvas to a certain extent, but it is notable that he didn't paint over the image of the house in the bottom center of Recuerdos.
Earl Staley, Recuerdos detail, acrylic collage, 2011
This was Staley's home/studio in the Heights. It is a memory that he apparently does not wish to obliterate with paint. On the other hand, it's still hanging in his studio--he could change his mind and cover it with one of his dot storms. For the moment, however, it still seems important to keep this particular recuerdo intact.
Staley's collage work is quite different from other, older work.
Earl Staley, Big Rock Candy Mountain, acrylic, 2009
But his work over all is not exactly self-similar. It's a little hard to reconcile Big Rock Candy Mountain, with its unnaturally intense colors, with the more naturalistic colors of Entrance to the basin , Big Bend, N.P. Texas from 10 years earlier.
Earl Staley, Entrance to the basin , Big Bend, N.P. Texas, acrylic, 2009
But the use of bright neon colors is more characteristic and has been since at least the mid-70s. He's no Giorgio Mirandi. It may be that this combination of extremely strong colors, his pointillism (which seems like a relatively recent addition to his basket of techniques--at least it wasn't present in his 70s/early 80s paintings), and his use of collaged canvases leads to paintings that struggle to resolve themselves. But even so, we can observe that here is an artist in his 70s who is still evolving. How often does that happen?